Dutch-Aussie director Rolf de Heer is always doing something different. From making surreal and 'disturbing' odysseys like Bad Boy Bubby, to straight dramas, and borderline documentaries, there's never a dull moment with his films. Today's entry is the perfect example of this-An Aussie silent film from 2007!...
Dr. Plonk is a mild-mannered mad scientist living in 1907 era Australia. After an unknowingly botched experiment says the world will end in 101 years, he builds a time machine to try and prove his findings. However, he only seems to cause more trouble, and becomes not only a nuisance in his time and the future, but eventually a wanted man...
Dr. Plonk came to be when de Heer found a bundle of leftover film, and fancied a light endeavour. Intended as a throwback and pastiche of old silent cinema, it succeeds wonderfully, and really does feel like a movie that time forgot.
The story is an amusing and simple one. It's really just an excuse to string gags along, but an effective one. It doesn't need to be complex, getting across everything it needs to, less being more. Even the stakes of the film are nonexistent for the audience, and this is a good thing here. The fact that we know from the get-go that the world isn't actually going to end means the movie never feels like it's wasting its time by focusing on all these gags and setpieces instead of getting straight to the biscuits and saving the world, because we know everything is actually ok, even if they don't.
The characters are a bunch of larger-than-life goofs. There's the daffy Doctor, his large wife, equal parts caring and stern, and his dimwitted assistant Paulus, who consistently tries and fails to pick up women. The ball-loving pooch Tiberius is an adorable addition to the cast, giving lots of great humour and lightness to the proceedings.
The comedy here works great. If you've ever seen a silent film before, you know what to expect here. All the familiar tropes and gags make welcome returns, along with lots of fresh material. The film has a great eye for visual gags. They are a joy to watch and never outstay their welcome.
1907 Australia is recreated so perfectly that you could swear this was authentic. Everything from the sets, to locations, cars, and dresses/outfits are all pitch perfect. But that's only half the film. Something I was both eagerly awaiting and nervous about, the modern settings fit in well! I was afraid they'd look too at odds with the film's classical feel, but no such problem exists, thankfully. While they do look completely different, no doubt intentionally so given the vast difference in eras, it's never so much so that it spoils the movie, or makes those scenes feel disconnected. It's a treat seeing how the very exaggerated turn of the century man interacts with the humdrum modern world, from families hypnotised by the idiot box, to gatecrashing parliament house, and falling afoul of the heavily armed modern police, who manage to feel just as Keystone inspired as their 1907 counterparts.
The only thing I didn't like about the movie was the ending. It's a breakneck climax, where everyone is running from one place to another, and you wonder if everyone is gonna be ok. Then, instead of really giving us a proper conclusion, the movie throws us a curveball. I felt this was unsatisfying partially because it gets your heart racing over how the hero is gonna get home, and when it never happens it kinda feels like we've been cheated of that sense of relief. Secondly, it's a real bummer to watch, especially for such a farcical movie! If you watched Dr. Plonk and Bad Boy Bubby back to back, you would honestly not expect Dr. Plonk to be the film with a downer ending!
The music in Dr. Plonk is wonderful! It has that classical silent feel, with an abundance of jaunty ditties, and ambient noises fitting perfectly to accentuate the sounds and actions onscreen. We also get a nice accordion recreation of Beethoven's 9th Symphony (I'll leave which Movement a surprise). Tracks are repeated every now and then, but in a good way. A movie that features nonstop scoring has often got to reuse tracks, and how well this goes depends on the frequency, how much time passes between each use, and the general quality of the piece. Dr. Plonk ticks all those boxes, thankfully, and you enjoy hearing these lovely tracks once more.
Nigel Lunghi makes for a great visual lead as the titular Doctor, and never exaggerates too much, or underacts. Paul Blackwell is fun as the sidekick. National treasure Magda Szubanski is great as Mrs. Plonk, with both her appearance and facial expressions giving her character a distinct personality. And last up is Reg the Dog! Either Reg is just a super excitable pup and de Heer and crew used that to their advantage, or he is a very promising actor, to be applauded and given biscuits!
Problems aside, Dr. Plonk is still a real gem, and ought to be watched by all silent film aficionados! It's heartening to know that Australia, the country responsible for some of the world's first features at the dawn of cinema, still isn't finished with the silent era...